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Columbia Festival of the Arts to begin second act

Executive Director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts Todd Olson poses for a photo at Historic Oakland in Columbia, MD on Monday, November 17, 2014. Todd is the new leader of the festival and he is taking it in a new direction.
Executive Director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts Todd Olson poses for a photo at Historic Oakland in Columbia, MD on Monday, November 17, 2014. Todd is the new leader of the festival and he is taking it in a new direction. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The Columbia Festival of the Arts, a nonprofit that puts on a premier, three-week-long arts festival each summer, is poised to undergo a series of changes next year that its leaders say signal a second act for the organization.

The most notable change is the format of the festival: it will no longer be an annual 16-day event every June. Instead, the nonprofit will put on a series of three-day, weekend festivals throughout the year, one each season.

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Each three-day festival will have a defined theme that will be reflected in the performances, decor and art.

"It's not a radical new direction; we are still presenting the same kind of product that we always have. We are just doing it in a different shape," said Todd Olson, who is spearheading the change as the new executive director of the nonprofit.

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Other changes could include more original theater productions by the festival, a stronger focus on local arts groups, an increased focus of food, more involvement with Howard County students and greater diversity of performances.

"My favorite metaphor is that we are building the plane while we are flying it, because we are doing a lot of changes at once," Olson said.

Olson's hiring earlier this year coincided with the festival's introduction of a new strategic plan, which is serving as a de facto script for the festival's second act.

Larry Coppel, chairman of the festival's Board of Directors, said the format change is in response to one of the plan's key goals: to broaden the scope and diversity of the festival's offerings and increase its year-round presence.

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"When you only have a festival during a one two-week period, you don't get all the performers you want," he said. "Your opportunities are fewer, when you expand the festival to year-round, you can expand [the opportunities]."

Coppel said the need for the strategic planning process was born out of a confluence of factors, including a dip in ticket sales for the festival.

"This is the 28th year of the festival, and over the years the festival has brought in great performers to the community. ... It is still very popular, but we noticed a lot of things going on in Howard County; the population is changing, and we noticed a fall off in sales," he said.

He added: "We decided to do a full-blown strategic plan to find out what people think and decide what we need to do in order to make it exciting for people to attend."

Olson said it was clear to him that the organization was in search of a shift.

"I think the strategic plan showed an organization ready for some change," he said. "There are so many summer things going on; if someone has a conflict in the summer, you can't get them. Now we have six calendars on the wall: the two festivals for this fiscal year and the four festivals in the next fiscal year. So there is always an opportunity. I just think it's better business."

The first festival under the format will debut April 17-19 and is called "American Routes." Olson said the festival will be staged at Oliver's Carriage House and Historic Oakland, two culturally significant venues located in Columbia's Town Center.

Olson said the theme will focus on the ripple effects of American-inspired art, both domestically and abroad.

For 2015 only, the June festival will be a hybrid between the old format and the new format, Olson said. This special festival is expected to run the same length as the traditional festival, 16 days, and its theme will be "Cross Currents," which will have a "contemporary bend" set to an aquatic-inspired landscape.

Olson said the next four festivals are still being planned but the themes are largely established. The fall 2015 festival will have a "British Invasion" theme; the winter festival is dubbed "Beyond the Blues" and will be influenced by African-American art; the spring 2016 festival will be inspired by Latin American art and is called "Viva La Vida;" and the June 2016 festival will be called "Silk Road Stories" and will focus on Asian-inspired art.

County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents parts of Columbia and is a festival board member, agreed that it was time for the organization to reevaluate.

"We needed to really look at ourselves in what is happening artistically both close to home and regionally, so we can see ourselves in the broader picture of the arts in the Baltimore and Washington region," Sigaty said. "Our goal ultimately is to be relevant to the community and make the things that we do really accessible and make sure the different populations see themselves in the arts and participate with us."

Jean Moon, a founder of the festival, former board member and volunteer, said the festival plays an integral role in the community landscape. But she added that it was time for the organization to make some changes.

"We've arrived at a point, for the festival to succeed, it needs to brand itself better," Moon said. "Todd sees this as bringing the festival into the mainstream, year-long cycle. ... I think that's excellent."

In the spotlight

Olson, 51, started as executive director on Aug. 1 replacing longtime director Nichole Hickey who retired after the 2014 festival. Hickey, whose husband Michael Hickey was one of the founders of the festival, served as director since 2004.

Before taking the job, Olson served as artistic director for the American Stage Theater Company in St. Petersburg, Fla.

When Olson took the job, he said most of the mandate and vision for the organization had already been set.

"I've been through a bunch of strategic plans before. I am kind of the lucky builder who gets to show up after all the hard work of making the blueprint is done," he said.

Coppel said bringing together a new executive director and a new vision for the organization was coincidental and serendipitous.

"Nichole did a tremendous job of bringing in performers and creating a financially sustainable organization," he said. "When Nicole decided to retire, it kind of coincided with our strategic planning process, in a sense it was good timing."

Coppel said Olson impressed the board.

"His creativity, his personality; we thought he would engage well with the Howard County community," he said.

Sigaty said Olson impressed her, too, from the first interview, and has the qualities it takes to bring forth the new vision.

"He is imaginative, but he has also run organizations where he has taken the imagination and turned it into something," she said.

Olson, who lives in River Hill with his wife, Charlotte, and three children, said part of the appeal for taking the job was living in Columbia.

"I just thought: this is such a unique place," Olson said. "And the cultural ecosystem of Baltimore on one side and D.C. on the other, this is where arts can really thrive."

He said Howard County has a rich arts community, and noted developments that he thinks will only improve the climate.

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He notably praised the Inner Arbor Plan for Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia. The controversial plan calls for cultural venues, including an outdoor amphitheater, in a curated arts park. The unconventional design of the plan has drawn both praise and criticism from the community.

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"Columbia is at an interesting tipping point," he said. "I think all the activity in Symphony Woods will only seek to give arts groups homes and other venues to fill up all year-round, and I just think that's a really good thing."

He added: "My hope for arts groups around here is that, if Symphony Woods grows like it could, these groups could really blossom and be showcased in an exciting way. This could be a cultural epicenter for all of central Maryland."

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